Before I arrived in China, I was told that many people I would interact with either had never seen a black person or very rarely came across someone who looks like I do. It seems silly to think about, being born in a region of the US where I’m likely to see people of all different colors and sizes, but it really is true.
The first thing I noticed was that my black friends and I were being stared at…A LOT. Most of the time people looked confused, or like they had just seen a monster, which still makes me laugh. People would stop dead in their tracks walking down the street to stare, or whisper to their friends while staring at us. I can’t even tell you how many times I caught people trying to take candid photos of me and my black friends, and sometimes, having said nothing at all, people walked right up to us, took a photo, and walked away. This is the first level of curiosity…sight.
My second day in China I’d gone to the ATM on campus to withdraw some cash when I heard two women speaking to each other behind me. I turned around to find those women dressed in Tibetan garb, waving with so much excitement as they motioned for me to come over to them. After I got my cash, I walked up to them and greeted them in Mandarin, which really surprised them. My hair looked like this at the time…
…and they were so fascinated by it, touching it and inspecting the individual twists, saying it was so long and pretty, and asking how I’d managed to get it to look that way. One of these women took my arm in her hand, rolled my sleeve up past my wrist, and rubbed my skin, saying it was the color of clay, I think to see if the color would stay on. Haha, I love it! Then they both said thank you about 8 times, and I was free to go.
Later in the year, I was talking across campus to go pick up a package from the post office when a car stopped next to me. The passenger rolled down his window, and pointed at me almost hissing, “heiren! heiren!”, which means “black person”. Then the car sped off as the man rolled his window back up. I just laughed and laughed and went on my way. As I think about it, I probably should have done something outrageous, like start dancing or something, but that probably wouldn’t have helped anyone!
At some point I had caught a cab and the cab driver asked what country I was from. I responded “我是美国人” (wo shi mei guo ren), which means “I am American”. He suddenly gasped and asked if I was telling the truth, and I confirmed that I was. He then insisted that I was from Africa, which in retrospect wasn’t such a weird assumption to make; most of the other black people I met in China were native Africans. I kept reassuring him that I was American, saying I have papers and everything LOL. I told him I was born in Maryland and that my parents are white people, which really confused him. I had to tell him that I was adopted or else I might have ruined his perception forever. That ride was actually a lot of fun; I had my first friendly argument with a Chengdu native.
During another cab ride, I was sitting in the front seat (which is not out of the ordinary), and by that time I had taken my braids down so my hair looked like this…
The driver, a female, asked if that was my real hair, and I said yes. I don’t think she believed me, because she reached over, took and handful of my poof, and tugged at it, then laughed and laughed. At the time I wasn’t amused because she had pulled my hair pretty hard, but it makes me giggle today. Not even some of my American friends had seen an Afro in real life and asked if the could touch it!
There was one time where I think some cultural misconceptions got the better of people. A few of my American friends had been invited to go to K-TV (karaoke) by one of our Chinese friends, who was bringing some of his friends. When said friends finally arrived, they were very quiet and reserved, taking no part in all the revelry. They left suddenly, and our Chinese friend went after them to see why they’d left. He told us that one of them had an emergency and needed to leave, but later we found out that they were afraid of me and Brittany because we are black. They had wealthy parents and had originally invited all of us back to their mansion or whatever for a party, but then I found out that they had uninvited Brittany and I, while everyone else was welcome. At first I was pretty mad, because nothing like this had even happened to me in the US, but quickly I decided that it wasn’t worth thinking about. Apparently one of those boys had been robbed by a black person while studying in Canada, so his perceptions were probably (massively) warped. Weird, right?
Anyway, I would equate being black in China to being some kind of celebrity; every day people wanted to take pictures of us and know who we were and where we were from. Eventually I just started posing for the candid photos, because it was just something to get used to. And it wasn’t just the black students in our program. Most anyone who was obviously not Chinese had the same experience one way or another.